Hostile environment

Sept. 1, 2007
When it snows a few miles away from this truck equipment shop, the snow just sits there, and sits there, and sits there. Eventually the weight of the

When it snows a few miles away from this truck equipment shop, the snow just sits there, and sits there, and sits there.

Eventually the weight of the accumulated snow is enough to turn the snow to ice and to turn the ice to glaciers.

That's just the way things work in the mountains around Anchorage. But that's not the case for other places such as streets, highways, driveways, and parking lots. People in Alaska have the same expectations that residents of the Lower 48 have. When they hit the road, they want to be able to remain on the road — and hit nothing but the road.

Not surprisingly, sales of snow and ice control equipment are an important part of the product mix for Truckwell of Alaska, a multi-line truck equipment distributor based in Anchorage. Average snowfall in the immediate area around Anchorage is 69 inches per year. Granted, that is nothing like the 141 inches that Marquette, Michigan, averages — or even the 93 inches that Buffalo, New York, receives in an average year. But Truckwell does not just serve the Anchorage area. The company covers all of Alaska, including Valdez.

What's special about Valdez? Had it not been for the infamous oil spill of 1989, this city would be best known for being the snowiest place in America. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Valdez receives an average of 326 inches of snow per year, That's more than 27 feet per year. By contrast, Buffalo is balmy. Snow and ice control equipment comes in handy in Valdez.

But when it comes to truck equipment, the climate in Alaska does more than just create a need for snowplows and spreaders. It also affects how trucks and trailers are designed and operated.

Trucks and the people who operate them need some special care in order to be protected from the extreme cold, especially in the northern portions of the state. Example: some van bodies have to be insulated more heavily than the average ice-cream delivery truck in order to keep the cold out of the bodies.

Putting ice on the road

A lot of distributors install truck equipment to take snow and ice off the road. Truckwell of Alaska does that, too, but the company also equips trucks to put ice on the road. That's because the oil industry, the most dominant segment of Alaska's economy, travels on ice. In some cases, roads made of ice are the only avenues to oil.

There are no conventional roads leading to the oil-rich reserves beneath Alaska's North Slope. In order for the heavy rigs that explore and produce oil and gas to reach these fields, they must travel through fragile Arctic tundra. As such, truck travel is highly restricted. Environmental regulations require that trucks travel over the icy terrain only by rolling along a road of ice.

And these roads do not exist for much of the year.

“Ice roads are permitted to be built only after we have had between 15 and 30 days of continuous below-zero weather,” says Arnie Swanson, president of Truckwell. “The ground has to be frozen solid. Then trucks equipped with water tanks are used to build up the ice to a depth of 16-18 inches. When the ice is deep enough, a rake grooves the top of the surface. It's a pretty expensive process — it costs about $1 million per mile to build.”

And when break-up comes (annual spring thaws), the road dissolves, and the process is repeated a few months later.

“The roads last about six months,” Swanson says.

If truck traffic can only reach the oilfields on ice roads, that means oilfield workers cannot work during the summer when the roads are melted (but when conditions are bearable). Instead, they do their job when the weather is at its absolute inhospitable worst. The winds howl, and temperatures routinely hang around 60 degrees below zero. These are conditions that limit the amount of time that even the most warmly dressed people can work outside.

But it is possible to keep oilfield workers comfortable under those conditions, and Truckwell does a good business making that possible.

Today's oilfield industry is not nearly the manual job that it used to be — particularly inside the Arctic Circle. Equipment can be operated, seismic logs can be studied, all within the confines of offices that are kept at 70 degrees inside.

“That's our standard,” Swanson says. “The inside temperature has to be at least 70 degrees, even when it's 60 degrees below outside.”

The need to keep people out of the weather also creates the need for a variety of truck-mounted equipment. Trailers also are needed, such as the 40-foot trailer that Truckwell converted to a break room capable of serving about 35 people.

Of course, it's not just people that have to be kept warm. Truckwell builds some unusual lube trucks in order to make it possible for equipment to be maintained in temperatures that could easily transform lube oil into something resembling the contents of the La Brea tar pits.

Knowing the customer

Truckwell of Alaska has extensive experience working with oil companies and oilfield service companies operating on the North Slope.

“Halliburton, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Petrofina, they all work up there,” Swanson says.

The equipment these companies buy tends to be heavier — and more expensive — than normal. That's because after driving hundreds of miles along ice roads to get to the furthermost edges of the world as we know it, the last thing the customer wants is equipment failure. It's not as if the operator can just turn around and drop the truck off at the distributor's shop if something breaks.

“Oil companies want their trucks built five times stronger than they need to be,” Swanson says. “We provide them with what they want.”

Van bodies for use in the North Slope need heavy insulation. Initially Truckwell tried conventional sheet-and-post construction, but the additional insulation that had to be applied caused severe bowing in the sidewalls — even when the walls were shored. To prevent the bowing, Truckwell began using van bodies from TriVan Truck Body in Ferndale, Washington. Rather than using aluminum sheet, TriVan makes its bodies from interlocking aluminum extrusions. The result is a rigid sidewall that does not bow under the pressure of expanding polyurethane foam. And plenty of insulation is needed when the temperature of the air on one side of the wall is 130 degrees colder than the air on the other side.

New shop, new direction

Business has been increasing for Truckwell, and the company recently moved into a new shop to keep up with the growth.

“We had our biggest year in our history last year,” Swanson says.

Truckwell moved into the 18,000-sq-ft facility in January. “We had been looking at this building for two years,” Swanson says.

The structure, built on a four-acre site, came already equipped with much of what the company needed for truck equipment work, including two 10-ton bridge cranes. It also came with plenty of visibility from the road, something that the company's previous location lacked.

Because of the improved visibility of the new location, Swanson plans to add another dimension to the company's marketing efforts.

“We have always been dealer oriented, but we are getting a lot more retail business since we moved,” he says. “That's happening naturally as a result of our exposure from C Street. C Street is becoming a major thoroughfare that goes all the way through town. This has had a tremendous effect on our small plow business.”

Increasing retail sales

Truckwell has been selling 200-250 snowplows per year, but that might increase with the new location and the increase in retail sales.

“We have promoted snowplows with commercials on eight or 10 cable networks here,” Swanson says. “But that's pretty expensive. It's really important to watch your demographics and put your promotional efforts into something that does a good job of reaching potential customers and not just large numbers of people. It's also important to maintain continuity, which we couldn't do quite as well with television. We have switched over to our local newspaper, and we are going to run three or four ads per week for 12 weeks. We will rotate through different sections — sports, business, and the local news section on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays beginning with the first of September. A 12-week program should be just about right. By the time Thanksgiving comes, we will have sold 80% of the snowplows we will sell this season.”

Swanson says the spreader business tends to spike in January, as intermittent warm fronts create thaw and freeze cycles.

Traditionally, however, Truckwell has relied on dealers and commercial accounts for its snowplow business.

“We put a lot of snowplow trucks on display in cooperation with local truck dealers,” Swanson says. “It's usually a Boss snowplow and a Swenson spreader.”

Local military bases are good customers for snow and ice control equipment. Earlier this year, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage received the first F-22 Raptor fighter planes to replace the F-15s.

“They use V plows to keep the tarmac and taxiways clear,” Swanson says.

Serving customers

Truckwell's shop is open five days a week and half a day on Saturdays. However, things tend to break at the worst times. To make sure snow and ice control customers have what they need, Truckwell also publishes an emergency phone number. Dialing that number puts customers in touch with Swanson, who will open the shop in the middle of the night and sell customers whatever part they need.

The company also sells a number of extra parts at the time of installation that enhance the performance of the snowplow.

“We sell a lot of Preco strobe lights,” Swanson says. “They are required by city ordinance for anyone operating a snowplow. We also install Timbren helper springs. They do a good job of giving extra capacity when a snowplow is installed. Add-on sales can increase customer satisfaction with the way equipment performs while at the same time helping us increase our margins.”

New sister company

Recognizing a need in the used truck market, Truckwell recently formed Alaska Truck & Equipment, a used truck operation.

“We see a good market here for used trucks,” says Ed Darby, Swanson's partner and the man who heads up the new operation.

Darby has more than 30 years experience in the business, primarily with Alaska Truck Center in Anchorage, the local International dealer.

The operation brings in used trucks and tractors, sometimes converting tractors to straight trucks or installing a different type of commercial truck body.

A look back

Swanson got his training in the truck equipment business with the late Harley Lord, president of Sound Truck Equipment in Seattle.

Lord had given some thought to the market potential to his north, but it wasn't until Swanson went to visit his brother in Anchorage one Thanksgiving weekend back in the 1970s that it became evident that there was truck equipment to be sold in Alaska.

“Harley was skeptical when I asked him if I could take a couple of extra days to make some sales calls,” Swanson recalls. “But that was before I brought back $150,000 in orders.”

Swanson continued to work for Sound until Lord sold the company in the 1980s. Swanson and his brother Bob formed Truckwell of Alaska in partnership in 1989.

“It has been a great experience,” Arnie Swanson says. “Seventy five percent of our customers are more than just business partners. They are friends.”

Swanson, with 44 years in the truck equipment industry, is nearing the end of has career at Truckwell. Even so, he is optimistic about the continued strength in Alaska's market for truck equipment.

One of the reasons for his optimism involves the state's economy. About 80% of Alaska's economy is based on the oil and gas industry. The rest comes from tourism, logging, and fishing.

One of the biggest booms to Alaska's economy occurred when the Alyeska pipeline was completed in 1977. The 48-inch pipeline runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez.

The pipeline cost over $8 billion to build, the largest privately financed construction project at the time it was completed. With the pipeline making it possible to move the oil efficiently from the North Slope, Alaska now supplies nearly 17% of the United States' domestic crude oil production.

An even more ambitious project is in the works. Plans call for another 48-inch pipeline to be constructed. This one would transport natural gas some 4,800 miles from Alaska to Chicago.

“It's going to happen,” Swanson says. “And when it does, there won't be enough truck equipment anywhere around to meet the demand.”